The shadow of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, established firmly and with lasting effect in Mel Stuart's 1971 "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," looms gigantic. Try to read Roald Dahl's book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and, despite the drawings, you can't help but hear Wilder's voice. Look at the packaging for any of the current Wonka candies and you'll find a cartoony caricature of Wilder as Wonka. It's inescapable.
But in the creation of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Tim Burton's take on the classic story with Johnny Depp in the role of the wily chocolate maker, Burton and Depp don't try to escape it. Instead, they sidestep it completely and, in so doing, create a film that is not only a closer adaptation of Dahl's story but also an interpretation that -- and some might find this sacrilegious -- is a better film than the 1971 version.
Not better, per se. Just different. And that's the key -- and always has been -- for Burton's film to be successful.
The story in "Charlie" follows a similar path as the previous film incarnation and, indeed, the book: Willy Wonka (Depp) is a reclusive genius, holed away in his large, ostentatious chocolate factory thanks to the scheming of jealous rivals who sent spies in to steal his secrets. Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) lives in poverty in the shadow of the factory, wanting desperately to peek inside. Charlie lives in a ramshackle home with his grandparents -- Grandpas Joe (David Kelly) and George (David Morris) and Grandmas Josephine (Eileen Essell) and Georgina (Liz Smith), as well as his parents, Mother Bucket (Helena Bonham Carter) and Father Bucket (Noah Taylor), who appears in the book but is a notable absence in the original film. One day, Wonka announces that five golden tickets will be hidden in bars of chocolate all over the globe and he will be opening his factory to the five lucky winners. When the contest shakes out, the winners are four gross, repugnant children, Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) and Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), and our hero Charlie. And with a family member in tow, the five kids enter the castle-like factory and embark on a strange, unforgettable journey with a whacked out, creepy recluse as their guide.
But the fun doesn't lie in the actual plot; it's one everyone should be fairly familiar with. Rather, the joy to be found lies in Burton's imaginative interpretation of the material and Depp's brilliant take on one of children's literature's weirdest, most demented, yet strangely endearing characters.
Most notable of Burton's contributions is that Wonka has a backstory, something not even Dahl gave him. In "Charlie," Wonka is the son of an obsessive and renowned dentist (Christopher Lee). Dr. Wonka prohibits his son from eating candy -- going so far as to equip him with one of those large, bulky apparatus things for braces. So, like anyone who is prohibited from something, Willy finds a piece of candy, eats it and is hooked, leading him to want to embark on a confectionery life. Dr. Wonka is repulsed by the idea, leading Willy to leave home to the chorus of his father saying when Willy comes back he won't be there.
What's most brilliant about the backstory -- most of which is told through flashback -- is that it is some of the most Roald Dahl-esque things that Dahl himself didn't contribute. From the imagery to the characterization of young Willy and Dr. Wonka, Dahl would be proud of these characters and how they fit into his story. Does Burton deserve the credit for this or does screenwriter John August? Whoever it is deserves a hearty pat on the back for channeling a master storyteller in a way no one else up to now has.
Naturally, there are other surprises around every corner (but nothing dangerous!). But why ruin the thrill of discovering them?
Burton's other achievements in the film range from its look and feel to the idea of making all the Oompa Loompas something like a foot tall and played by one person (Deep Roy). All are glorious, but the two that stand out most are casting Depp as Wonka and recruiting Danny Elfman to score another of his films.
Depp, once again, is genius in a role that, played by anyone else, would have been done so for camp. But that's not what the character demands. Wilder knew this, and so does Depp. Wilder played Wonka has a heartfelt father-figure who has an undercurrent of darkness to him. Depp, on the other hand, plays it the opposite way. His Wonka doesn't want to be around kids -- or anyone for that matter -- and the factory tour is all very by the numbers and boring to him. The only time Depp allows Wonka to delight during the tour is when he is setting one of the kids up for disaster. "The suspense is terrible," Wilder's Wonka said in 1971, "I hope it will last."
Depp's Wonka would agree, but better than the suspense is manipulating the situation to create it. Look at his face when Augustus gets sucked into the pipe or when Veruca is attacked by trained squirrels or, better yet, how he tricks Mr. Salt (James Fox) into going after his daughter when she goes down the garbage shoot. Depp's Wonka is delighting in the misfortune, but he is reveling in causing it. That is what Dahl's Wonka was like in the book, and that is what a Wonka that exists in Burton's universe should be like as well.
But Depp isn't all doom and gloom. His Wonka does have a heart; it's just caged in by years of remorse and regret, which starts to melt away after Charlie comes along. And Wonka is crazy goofy in a way perfectly fitting for a Burton film. Depp has said he modeled Wonka after game show hosts and kiddie show hosts. But anyone who watches the film will find a comparison to another Burton character more apt -- Pee-Wee Herman. Those characters exist on the same wavelength -- adults trapped in a kid's mindset while also being a genius -- and have more than a streak of darkness running through them.
But because of how amazing Depp is in "Charlie," his portrayal will likely overshadow Danny Elfman's astounding score. It's like Elfman combined his film career with his work as a member of Oingo Boingo and out popped this sweet piece of music. The score is haunting, as his work is in all of Burton's films, but there is a New Wave tinge to many aspects of the songs, including the four Oompa Loompa songs and the opening credit music, all of which rely on synth beats as much as a string section.
With a film as brilliant as this, it's easy to get lost in just how much succeeds -- from the acting of Depp, Highmore and all the kids to indelible visual flair that marks all of Burton's films. But what can't be lost is just what Burton, Depp and everyone involved with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" accomplished with this film. They don't try to imitate the 1071 version or Wilder's take on Wonka, and, better yet, they don't make you forget about it, either. Instead, here is a film that can stand side-by-side with the original, both can be enjoyed fully on their own merits and nothing is lost between them.
What many would have thought was unthinkable, Burton and Co. accomplished. Talk about making a dream a reality.